Thanksgiving Day t-minus 5 hours, the countdown has started. Coffee in hand, I settle into my turkey day routine. I pull up YouTube and type in “fried turkey fails” and I scroll down looking for the must-see video of a frozen turkey being put into the fryer. The video goes a little something like this: the frozen turkey is lowered into the hot oil. Immediately you hear an eerie screeching sound caused by the frozen water molecules instantly being turned into steam. Desperate to escape, the steam pushes out of the turkey and into the hot oil causing it to boil over. The spilling oil hits the open flame igniting a fire ball of epic proportion. If the turkey is frozen solid it will sometimes shoot the bird like a rocket out of the pot. Once I have seen the video, I swallow deeply and I pledge that this will never happen on my watch and I go boldly into the back yard to fry myself a turkey.
Call me crazy, but deep frying a turkey is something that I do every Thanksgiving. I am such a fan that for years I fried them for customers as well. Even though I have cooked dozens of these crispy delicacies I always take the process seriously. According to Copeland’s, a New Orleans restaurant that specializes in cooking fried turkeys, “each year there is an average of 60 injuries, 5 deaths, over 15 million dollars in property damage, and 900 homes lost due to accidents caused by deep fried turkeys.” Why, you wonder, would I risk my health and possibly my home to fry what could easily be roasted? Flavor is the only answer I have for you and cooking up a turkey this good comes with risk.
To be honest, I hate roasting turkeys because most of the time they do not turn out the way you want them to. They are often overdone or not done enough. They only method that is off-the-charts good every time is frying. The meat is moist and tender, cooked perfectly throughout the bird. The skin is so wonderfully crispy it would make Colonel Sanders jealous. Trust me, I have been cooking turkeys and catering Thanksgiving for over 25 years and I have tried almost everything.
Another big plus on frying a turkey is that the cooking is done outdoors. Cooking outside frees up your oven for all the other dishes you are cooking. Another big plus is that the bird cooks in only about 45 minutes to an hour depending on the size, about 3 to 3.5 minutes per pound, whereas a roasted turkey will take about 20 minutes per pound to cook.
This method of cooking a whole turkey is relatively new to the cooking world and like so many great food trends it originated in the American south. Fried turkeys hail from Cajun country in Louisiana. The same people that gave us crawfish boils and Mardi Gras came up with the idea to fry a turkey whole. This makes sense because you cannot fry a turkey without the correct equipment. Cajuns use propane burners and large pots to boil up shrimp and crawfish, so it was only a matter of time until one of those crazy Cajuns filled that pot with oil and started frying things. Fried turkeys are not the only Acadian contribution to Thanksgiving. The famous Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme invented the Turducken. A Turducken is a deboned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck, further stuffed into a deboned turkey. The presentation of this dish is amazing, as you slice into the Turducken, you get a little of each bird, but that is an article for another time.
I first became aware of Cajun deep-fried turkeys in 1986 when a Cajun chef named Justin Wilson fried a whole turkey on his popular PBS cooking show, Louisiana Cookin’. The trend went viral the following year in 1987 when the Food Editors and Writers Association had their annual meeting in New Orleans, where they were treated to a live demonstration. The industry took this mind-blowing experience home with them and wrote about it extensively.
Some of you may be wondering, should you try this at home? 2020 has been a crazy year and this Thanksgiving may not be the one to try something new that comes with so many risks. On the other hand, some fun and excitement may be exactly what you need. This process involves buying a turkey. Frying set up, approximately 3 gallons of peanut oil, and a fire extinguisher made specifically for grease fires, so it is an investment. Follow the recipe and the cooking instructions that come with the fryer to the letter – this is no time to improvise or take short cuts. The UL (Underwriters Laboratory), has a list of safety tips that everyone al tempting to fry a turkey should read at ul.com. The other issue is the mess, the oil will splatter when cooking and there is always some oil that comes out with the turkey when it is removed from the pot. Do not set up your fryer on your nice patio or deck as the spilt oil will stain these surfaces. I place the fryer far away from any structures or over hanging trees and use broken down boxes as a base to catch any oil spills. Be brave, be safe, have fun and laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll). I would like to dedicate this article to my late father Clyde. My son Charlie and I miss him every time we fry a turkey together. You are greatly missed.
• Clyde Van Arsdall IV is an executive chef and lives in Coronado with his children.
RECIPES | COURTESY OF CHEF CLYDE VAN ARSDALL IV
Acadian Fried Turkey
Van Arsdall Family Recipe
1 or 2 10-15pound turkey(s) thawed completely*
3-4 gallons of peanut oil**
Fill pot to predetermined level with peanut oil and heat to 350-360 degrees***
Dry your thawed turkey completely inside and out.
Inject with marinade several times in the breast, legs, and thighs, wipe off excess.
Place turkey in basket, slowly lower turkey into the hot oil
Cook submerged in the oil for 3 to 4 minutes per pound. 12-14 pound turkey, 3 minutes per pound. 14-20-pound turkey, 3.5-4 minutes per pound. Never completely cover the deep fryer with a lid while
cooking, condensation will form and cause flare ups in the oil.
Remove cooked turkey from oil and check temperature, it should reach at least 170 degrees.
Wrap turkey with foil and let rest for 30 minutes before carving.
*Thawing the turkey completely is an especially important step and can take up to 35 hours in the fridge or cooler if the bird is frozen solid. Failure to thaw completely can be catastrophic.
**The safest way to know how much oil you will need is to take your turkey and place it in the pot you are using to fry in, cover the turkey with water. Remove the turkey and use a sharpie to mark the level of the water. When it is time to fry simply fill the pot to your mark with peanut oil. This guarantees that when the turkey is lowered into the pot and the oil is displaced it will not spill over and cause a fire.
***It usually take 45-1 to get oil to temperature. Do not exceed 360 as oil can smoke and catch fire.
Injection Marinade Makes about 3 cups
1 cup lemon juice
½ cup Old Bay or Zatarain’s crab boil
½ cup of olive oi
l½ cup butter
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons garlic powder as
2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning
1 teaspoon Tabasco Sauce
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Place everything in a saucepan over medium low heat until butter is melted. Stir and continue to heat until everything is liquefied. Let cool for 5min.
While still warm, use a large food syringe to inject the marinade directly into the breast, leg, and thigh meat and spread the injections out to get the best coverage.
Wipe away any excess that leaks from the injection site before frying.
Note: Not everyone like heat, I usually do one bird with a Cajun injection and one where I just inject it with a garlic rosemary butter. This is easily made by heating butter, garlic, and rosemary and letting it sit for an hour, thus infusing the butter.
1 Turkey Fryer (can be purchased at a hardware store or online)
*1 propane tank
1 turkey injector (can be purchased at a cooking store or online)
Aluminum Foil for wrapping bird after frying
Heat resistant oven mitts or gloves for submerging and removing turkey
*Purchase one that has a propane burner, pot, cooking basket, and most importantly a thermometer.
No need to brine your turkey as the frying method traps all the moisture in the turkey.
Many recipes call for a rub on the outside of the turkey, I have found this rub tends to burn especially on larger birds that need a longer cooking time in the oil.